CSFF Blog Tour – The Bone House by Stephen Lawhead, Day 2

Where is God in Stephen Lawhead‘s Bright Empires series, of which The Bone House (Thomas Nelson) is the second book? It’s inevitable in a Christian speculative tour to ask this kind of question.

As I’ve said of late, there really is only one distinctive in Christian fiction of any genre — it can tell the truth about God. No other fiction can. Stories by those of other religions or by atheists might do an exceptional job showing this world, but when it comes to ultimate reality — who God is, what He plans for Mankind, how He relates to people here and now or in the future — no one else besides Christians can tell the truth.

In other words, the fiction of those not believing in Jesus Christ will be flawed because they don’t have true understanding of reality. They either will write a story about the here and now leaving God out or they will write a story about the here and now or about the hereafter that is riddled with error about God.

But Christians don’t automatically, by virtue of our faith, depict God accurately in our fiction. Some admittedly don’t try.

A portion of those see their job as tilling the soil. They want to create a hunger and thirst for eternal things by showing something about love and life and meaning in the here and now.

Others don’t try because they don’t think they need to — their faith will be a part of their story, they believe, because it’s a part of them.

Where in all this does Stephen Lawhead fall? I have no idea. But without a doubt “religion” is moving forward in importance in the Bright Empires series.

In the first installment, The Skin Map, some reviewers didn’t think there was a central message about God. In my review I disagreed, saying, “I believe there is a consistent sprinkling of thought-provoking, well-timed mentions of God, sometimes referenced as Providence. I believe Mr. Lawhead has laid the ground work for an exploration of God’s providential work versus Man’s freedom to choose his own path.”

Honestly, I don’t yet know what the “central message” related to God is in the Bright Empires novels. After all, we’re only through book two of a five book series. But as I said above, religion has become more important.

For example, there’s this scene about a fourth of the way into the story:

Turms, splendid in a crimson robe and tall hat trimmed in gold, stooped low and thanked the animal for the sacrifice of its life. With a nod to Arthur and Xian-Li, he beckoned them to the altar and instructed them to place their hands upon the lamb. He then drew a knife made from black volcanic glass across its throat. The small creature lay still and expired without a sound. Then, while attendants eviscerated the carcass, a golden bowl in which some of the blood had been collected was passed to Turms.

He lifted the bowl and drank, then offered the bowl to both Arthur and Xian-Li.

The scene continues with this Egyptian Priest King completing the ceremony of divination and making a pronouncement that the unborn child in question would be healthy and have a long life.

This is the same Priest King, by the way, who earlier in the novel had this insight:

Turms was impressed once again, as he often was, how even the most seemingly insignificant and trivial actions and associations could, in the fullness of time, command great import.

Despise not the day of small things . . . was that how it went? It was a saying he had learned in Alexandria from a bearded eastern sage — a wise man of the cult of Yahweh — the god, it was claimed, who reigned above all others, who ordained and sustained all things for his creation, and who was worshiped by Hebrews to the exclusion of all others.

Half way into the novel another overtly religious scene unfolds. One of the characters based on the historical archeologist Dr. Thomas Young says this to Kit, the main character:

“Too many of my brother scientists are succumbing to a view that holds all religion as outdated nonsense — nursery tales from mankind’s infancy, dogmas to be outgrown and swept aside by scientific progress.”

“I’m familiar with the view,” confirmed Kit.

“But see here,” continued Thomas, brightening once more. “Contrary to what many may think, immortality is not a fairy tale invented to compensate for an unhappy life. Rather, it is the perception shared by nearly all sentient beings that our conscious lives are not bounded by this time and space. We are not merely lumps of animate matter. We are living spirits — we all feel this innately. And in our deepest hearts, we know that we can only find ultimate fulfilment in union with the supreme spiritual reality — a reality that appears, even during this earthly life, to take us beyond the narrow limits of time.”

As the conversation goes on, the doctor builds a case for Man’s consciousness — his self-awareness and imagination — not bound by time and space, yearning for “an affinity with the One Great Consciousness that made us — the spiritual consciousness of the Creator.”

He concludes by saying, “It is because we can establish an affinity with the eternal Creator that immortality becomes more than a fairy tale. At very least, you must allow, it becomes a most reasonable hope.”

As I see it, this exchange is central to understanding the main thrust of the Bright Empires novels.

But clearly, everything in the story, including the ultimate theme, is under construction. How the Priest King’s divination ceremony fits with Dr. Young’s religious philosophizing remains to be seen in the next three volumes.

About the only thing I can say with some sense of certainty is that Mr. Lawhead’s inclusion of religion is purposeful. He’s weaving the spiritual element into his stories with the same intrigue and care as he’s weaving the ley lines of his plot.

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5 Comments

  1. Good discussion. I’m currently writing my review of Lawhead’s Merlin, where he examines in some greater depth the relationship between Christianity and paganism. Merlin is usually portrayed as a pagan druid in most fiction, so I was pleased that Lawhead makes him so resolutely Christian, yet believably so. I haven’t read much literary criticism of Lawhead–positive or negative–but my own opinions of him are becoming quite positive indeed. He takes a lot from the writings of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, which speak of pagan myths as shadows of the Gospel that do have some real value, even as they are overall incorrect.

    I haven’t read his Bright Empires series, but I intend to read a lot more of his work. You mention ancient Egyptians and modern professors–does this series involve time travel, I wonder?

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  2. I found it fascinating we both quoted the same passage. I was a bit troubled by the inclusion of the divination, but I tried to see it as unique to the culture. I do hope he brings in more of the Christian worldview in the third book. How can he possibly ignore it?

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  3. David, thanks for stopping by and passing along your insights of Lawhead. Until we started including him on the CSFF tour, I’ll admit I hadn’t read much of his. This current series is so complex, the man has my admiration! Truly, I think this is a hugely ambitious undertaking, and if you have interest in him as a writer, should find its way on your to-be-read list.

    I agree that he has much in common with Lewis and Tolkien, which makes him all the more fascinating, in my view.

    Becky

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  4. Bruce, it is interesting that out of all the material in the book, that passage stood out to both of us. I was surprised that more people didn’t comment about the pagan ritual, though. Even some who expressed disappointment that there isn’t more Christian meaning, didn’t take the opposite view, asking what he’s doing with the pagan.

    Because my own books don’t have overt Christianity, and because, as I’ve said before, I’m certain most people would read the first book and think it’s not Christian fiction, I’m more patient, willing to see where Mr. Lawhead is going to take us. Given the subject matter, I’ll be flabbergasted if by the end we don’t see God’s hand in the stories much more clearly.

    Becky

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  5. I did not realize it was a 5 book series, thought it was 3 (my goof :P). Because I thought it was 3 and this was book 2, I expressed my disappointment that Stephen had not begun to display where he was going with his story, especially where God is involved. It will be interesting to see 🙂

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